When a Mr Eazi song starts playing, you’ll know it’s him straight away. “Zagadat! It’s your boy Eazi,” he announces every time, as the beats kick in. He made up the word zagadat. “It means spiritual, beautiful,” he explains. Think of it as his logo, his Universal Pictures globe at the start of a movie. I’ve rarely met anyone so conscious of his brand, which will become even more prominent when he puts on, not a gig, but a six-hour “Life is Eazi Culture Festival” at the Roundhouse this month.
Listen to the 26-year-old Nigerian’s music, particularly his mixtape from this February, Life is Eazi Vol 1: Accra to Lagos, and you’d conclude that he’s a mellow, unhurried soul. His sound is more minimal, less frantic than a lot of the African pop that today gets termed afrobeats. He sounds half-asleep as he sings his Auto-Tuned lines over pretty electronic melodies and head-nodding beats. He calls his sound “banku music”, after a heavy, filling Ghanaian food that is a mix of corn and cassava dough served with soup or stew. “If we were eating banku today, I warn you, your day would end,” he tells me. “I wouldn’t be able to do anything today. You would think I was high. It makes you so sleepy and slow.”
Only his mum knows him as Oluwatosin Ajibade. Even his dad, a pilot, calls him Eazi. He got the name while studying Mechanical Engineering and Business Management at university in Kumasi, central Ghana, because he was the person who would break up fights. “I’d always be the one saying, ‘Take it easy, take it easy’.” Working as a concert promoter while studying, he would sign off his emails with “Be eazi”. It stuck.
This horizontal persona remains when we meet in a cafe he likes in central London – one of three cities where he has bases, as well as Lagos and Accra, the largest cities in Nigeria and Ghana respectively. He’s tall and thin, all in Nike, and orders an English breakfast with the eggs done “anyhow”, which confuses the waiter, plus a hot chocolate to wash it down. But don’t let his relaxed style give the impression that he isn’t going places. Talking to him is like listening to a confident pitch for a globally successful pop career on Dragons’ Den.
“When you’re studying Engineering you learn a lot of analytical thinking. Sometimes you will do things just based on a hunch but most of the time I make my decisions based on data,” he says. He lists the most popular cities for streaming his music: New York, then London, Paris, Toronto and Stockholm. Lagos is tenth, Accra around fourteenth. In July he was named Apple Music’s fourth “Up Next” artist, which involved heavy promotion of his music and appearances on James Corden’s TV show and Julie Adenuga’s Beats 1 radio show. “Immediately on the announcement I had a surge in my streams. The marketing was immense. A lot of artists are trying to work with me: mainstream pop artists in the US. Even rock! It’s crazy. It’s like I don’t own myself any more.”
His cockiness sometimes doesn’t help him. A few days after we met, he did an interview on Capital’s XTRA radio station during which he claimed that lots of Nigerian acts are now copying his mix of the sounds of his homeland with Ghana’s slang and more laidback music. Nigeria’s Twitter users are currently furious, but it doesn’t look like it will slow down his rise in other countries.
This week a remix of his most popular song to date, Leg Over, was released courtesy of Major Lazer, the US dance trio who have scored huge hits with Lean On and their Justin Bieber collaboration Cold Water. They added popular American rapper French Montana and singer Ty Dolla Sign to the proceedings. Eazi may see the expression of the title in more romantic terms than its British sense – “My baby give me leg over,” he sings – but it’s an indelible tune, now made even more appealing to an international audience.
Meanwhile, another of his songs, Skin Tight, recently appeared online in a new guise featuring Rita Ora and Wizkid. The latter is the even more successful Nigerian singer, best known worldwide as one of the voices of Drake’s megahit One Dance, who is now popular enough in London to perform at the Albert Hall at the end of this month. It feels like a big moment for afrobeats, a hybrid sound that can also currently be heard in much of London’s urban music, including the hits of J Hus and Yungen.
Mr Eazi wants to be front and centre when the genre explodes. That’s why he’s putting on his Culture Festival, which will also feature art, a dance competition, a catwalk fashion show and DJs playing afrobeats music from the Sixties to the present day (he makes no distinction between afrobeats-with-an-S, the term for today’s sound, and afrobeat, the wild fusion style that made a global star of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti in the Seventies).
“I want to be seen as a curator,” he says. “It’s very key for there to be a cultural identity to the genre if it’s going to last. When you think of grime, there’s a culture. The clothes, the dance, all of these other elements should be highlighted.”
Looking at the bigger picture, he wants afrobeats to become as familiar worldwide as the sound of Jamaica. “I feel like the closest to afrobeats is reggae. When you think of reggae today, you think of the dreadlocks, the patois, the colours, the marijuana. What makes it stand strong and have longevity is the culture attached to it. It’s not tied to one artist. I don’t really care about being the number one artist. I want it to go beyond me.”
And there’s no reason why his casual voice shouldn’t become as recognisable in the “featuring” spot on new pop hits as, say, Sean Paul’s is today. In the summer he appeared at the Creamfields dance festival near Liverpool to perform the song Money with Newcastle house producer Riton. He says he’s been making more songs with Major Lazer. “It’s cross-pollination, mutually beneficial,” he says. “They want to reach my big audience too.”
The next part of the big plan is the setting up of a “hub” in Lagos with recording studios, a photo studio and video editing facilities, from where he can sign new artists to his label, Banku Music. He’s also making a collection specifically designed for new fans, titled Who Is Mr Eazi?, that will couple his four most popular songs to date with big name remixes of each. After that he’ll follow up his Accra to Lagos mixtape with Lagos to London, working with both Nigeria and UK-based producers. The stage is set for his intended crossover to a worldwide audience.
“I really do feel so,” he says. “Recently I played in Glasgow to all these proper, proper British girls. I played at Notting Hill Carnival and thought that nobody would know my songs, but got this amazing reaction. In the past few weeks I’ve been seeing videos of Japanese kids dancing to my music. I’ve never been to Japan.”
He continues: “I always say that muisic is a soul language, and the language of the soul is universal. It’s just about getting people to hear it. There’s really no limits.” I’ll drink to zagadat.
The Life is Eazi Culture Festival 2017 is on Sept 23, Roundhouse, NW1 (0870 389 1846, roundhouse.org.uk)